Agnes, more commonly known as Anne Hathaway, is a woman who believes in the healing power of plants. She lives and breathes the forest. It speaks to her; her veins run green with it. In Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet, we are introduced to Agnes as a beekeeper. She has a calmness about her which means she feels no need to wear a veil, and so the townsfolk whisper that she must be a witch — after all, she once owned a hawk, and she can sometimes predict the future. They paint her with danger, and she pretends not to mind. She is married to the son of a glovemaker who now makes his fortune in the theatres of London. Together, they have three children. Soon, they will only have two.
Hamnet is about the death of one of Shakespeare’s children but William Shakespeare’s name is not mentioned once in its pages. We already know his name, it seems to be saying; we don’t need to hear it. We need to see him, instead, and hear the names of everyone around him. And, so, we open with his son, Hamnet, running through the town trying to find members of his family and then, when he cannot locate them, a physician — for his twin sister, Judith, is sick with pestilence: she has bubonic plague.
O’Farrell brilliantly captures the way in which time can trick us during periods of disaster. Hamnet pauses over tiny things, ‘momentarily slipped free of his moorings’, before the gravity of the sickness hits him and hours hurry by. His search for his family unfolds as it would on the stage: comical near-missings, passing the narrative like a baton. But Hamnet’s father cannot orchestrate this one as he would his own script, and Agnes cannot calm this sickness like she would calm her bees. Even O’Farrell cannot alter the ending of this story as, of course, it is already written, and this dance with predetermination is one of the reasons why this book works so superbly, and why it will break your heart so sharply.